-Wednesday, Aug. 8, 1787
Yesterday the Convention rejected Gouverneur Morris's proposal that national voting be limited to freeholders (farmers who own property).
THE first skirmish regarding the new Constitution occurred in the Convention today over the volatile issue of computing slaves in the rule of representation, only to have both sides beat a hasty retreat.
The explosive issue suddenly surfaced after delegates had resolved one other thorny issue. The Convention decided to leave voter qualification to the States, because delegates could not devise a uniform rule consistent with varying, conflicting qualification codes in the 13 States.
Rufus King of Massachusetts fired the first verbal broadside at the Committee of Detail's recommendation that a slave be computed as three-fifths of a person when counting population as a basis for deciding the number of representatives in Congress. ``The people of the N[orthern] States could never be reconciled [to it],'' the Massachusetts lawyer thundered. ``No candid man could undertake to justify it to them.'' Mr. King was saying, in effect, that the draft Constitution proposed to sanction the slave trade.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut, in reply, said he regarded the slave trade as a wicked injustice, but the matter had been settled by the Convention ``after much difficulty & deliberation.''
What Mr. Sherman did not say was that he and John Rutledge of South Carolina had privately settled the matter over dinner at the Indian Queen Inn in late June. Mr. Rutledge promised to support Connecticut's Western land claims against Pennsylvania if Mr. Sherman would support South Carolina on the slave trade issue.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania is probably aware of the deal, and was unusually moralistic for so worldly a political cynic. He told the Convention that slavery was a curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed, adding:
``Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution. ... [I] would sooner submit [myself] to a tax for paying for all the Negroes in U. States than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.''
Charles Pinckney replied that slavery was a Southern issue and there were other sectional problems: such as New England's fight over fishing rights with Great Britain and the development of Western lands, which were more burdensome to the United States than slavery. James Wilson, to the relief of most delegates, insisted the passionate debate was premature. The sparks generated by the issue, however, may be a forecast of the fire to come.
Today the issue was left in limbo rather than allowed to rub raw the emotions of delegates faced with a long list of items to consider.
Today's session demonstrated that the Convention is beginning to display sectional divisions.
One is how to calculate slaves in the ratio for representation in the House of Representatives.
Another is that the Northern shipping States might want to impose restrictions on Southern exporting States who demand unrestricted commerce. This particular issue appears to be hidden behind Northern denunciation of slavery and the South's defenses of the institution.
These issues could well determine the character of future legislation affecting the commerce of both North and South.
These day-by-day reports on the Constitutional Convention will continue tomorrow.